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Mursi and His Opponents Must Both Back Down to Save Egypt

By the Editors
December 06, 2012 6:55 PM EST

The ability to lose gracefully is an element of a healthy political system so far lacking in Egypt’s nascent democracy.

The non-Islamist opposition doesn’t like the draft constitution put forward by an Islamist-dominated assembly, and it knows the document, which is supported by President Mohamed Mursi, is likely to win approval in a Dec. 15 referendum. So it’s determined to stop the vote -- protesting and threatening a general strike.

This kind of brinkmanship is fraught with risks. Supporters and opponents of Mursi came to blows Dec. 5 in Cairo. Five people were killed, and more than 600 injured. The more Egypt’s political forces battle each other, the greater the chances the military will reassert power, reversing democratic gains of the past six months.

Is there any way out of the cycle of recklessness? One possibility would be for Mursi and the opposition to each back down in a significant way.

Mursi went far too far last month when he acted to prevent the judiciary from dissolving the constitutional assembly, granting himself authority “to take any measures he sees fit” to safeguard the country. He has promised to revoke the decree once a constitution has been approved. Yet that amounts to blackmailing Egypt’s voters. Essentially he’s saying: Approve the draft constitution or you’re stuck with me as dictator.

Now that the constitutional assembly has finished its work, his putative reason for the decree is gone, so he should repeal it. That would encourage Egyptians to vote on the merits of the document, and dilute the stain that has attached to Mursi since his power grab, even among his supporters.

For its part, the opposition should consider limiting its demands to the lifting of Mursi’s decree. Opponents have raised objections to the entire constitutional process. Although Islamists made up only half the 100 members of the drafting committee, they are said to have dominated it.

Yet the outcome is hardly the disaster some opponents have described. The draft improves on the suspended 1971 constitution in a number of ways. It protects against arbitrary arrest, inhumane treatment and torture; enshrines freedom of assembly and association; and limits the president to two, four-year terms. It promises women’s and minority rights by guaranteeing citizens equality before the law and freedom from discrimination.

Certainly, the draft is imperfect. The old constitution guaranteed religious freedom period, while this one promises it only to practitioners of monotheistic faiths. Freedom of expression is guaranteed, but insulting prophets or individuals is forbidden. Rights and freedoms are limited by the need for the state and society to preserve the “true nature of the Egyptian family,” a worrying provision for women’s rights.

Given the mandate that voters bestowed on Islamist parties in parliamentary elections a year ago, however, it’s hard to imagine that a constitutional draft would read the way non- Islamist groups would write it.

The document can be amended by a Parliament to be elected once a constitution is in place. To exploit that possibility, the opposition should be able to point to a significant “no” vote in the referendum, as a sign Egyptians want changes. Non- Islamists also need to do well in the parliamentary balloting.

Accordingly, opponents would be wise to ditch their tactics of disruption and seriously contest the referendum. They can continue to call for Mursi to rescind his extraordinary powers while also carrying out a funded, staffed, coordinated campaign to get out the “no” vote.

A “no” campaign would also battle test the opposition in advance of parliamentary elections, which the Islamists won last time largely because they were better organized. In this way, the opposition will be more likely to turn a probable loss in the referendum into a win down the road.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

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